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Not like that other Neverland: Peter Pan at Yale

Swirling Swordfights, Indian tribes, Victorian dresses, effortless flights of fancy and…flight, fairies like wind chimes, and a Lord Byron-esque pirate captain with a hook for an arm—the stuff of children’s dreams. No one knows childhood better than Peter Pan, the boy who would not grow up.

And if you’ve ever looked out a window in Bass or SML, you too must have thought about what it was like when you were that child or whether you were ever like that child at all. No late-night essays or organic chemistry problem sets, no Buddhist texts or senior theses—just revelry and that peculiar rightness that comes with not knowing about anything other than yourself and your own preoccupations.

Wendy, John, and Michael and the Darling Children are, perhaps, the least likely people to have gazed out that window. Respectable members of the self-consciously respectable British, do-gooders, by most measures, and aspiring adults, the children are goofy representations of “almost theres”—unlikely half-breeds of naiveté and worldliness. Sarah Delappe, BR ’12, gave ample voice to the awkwardly articulate and sensitive-beyond-her-years Wendy, a character all too familiar with the pressures of ladyhood that she will soon grow up too face. It is no wonder, then, to see her quickly enchanted by the viciously independent and charmingly wistful Peter Pan, played by a princely Timmia Hearn-Feldman, MC ’12. Spry, vivacious, and attractive in his absolute conviction, Peter is an easy source of the children’s adulation. They’re enraptured—stolen and promptly flown out that bedroom window in a way that the security guards at Bass have prevented with mandatory backpack checks.

Neverland is the place where children never grow up, where dreams are never impossible, and where nothing is ever understood; where pirates battle with lost boys, as if swordfights were Nerf gun wars, and where Marooners rock; and, where the killing fields of pirate punishment are just another fact of seamanship. Neverland is not concerned with the cultural disconnect of East and West, but the Narcissean pool of reflection, where things are what they are, for whoever chooses to look. Peter Pan is, perhaps, the one who gazes most intently, and the other boys are eager to stare at his reflection. Their self-selected leader, Peter Pan leads his eager troupe of merry and motherless boys in their unceasing search for roughhousing and adventure. Their general contentment is only occasionally marred by a deep longing for a mother, a figure who—for many of the lost boys—exists only in the rarefied realm of the Neverland imagination.

The Lost Boys are not alone in their craving. Their Neverland shadow, the pirates—headed by Captain Hook (only slightly more frightening than Johnny Depp)—also inherit an Oedipus complex, albeit of a slightly more tragic variety. Justin Dobies, MC ’12, plays both the role of Captain Hook and Mr. Darcy, a decision that reflects the startling consequences of men unmoored from their history. Like Peter Pan, Hook is stuck—stuck in his future, and steeped in his desires. Quick to temper, Dobies plays a Hook that, for all of his command and courage, is deeply unsuited for leadership. Charismatic and crafty as he may be, Hook is a character that understands the tenuousness of his position, even if he’s powerless to stop it.

While the groups are led by consummate posturers, rare moments of innocence and humanity shine through. The lost boys, for all of their obedience to Pan, are more accessibly and visibly affected by the fears and dreams of youth, and played with a grace that captures their sporadic reflection well. Although at times heavy-handed in their childishness, they are more believable than John and Michael because they are children, pure children, who have known another world rarely. The pirates, too, are complex, most notably Smee, played by Mark C. Sonnenblick, SM ’12, who is thoughtfully cruel and snarky.

If the relationship between Neverland and the real world is ambiguous, so is the relationship between the stage and the audience. At the time of Tinkerbell’s poisoning, there is a plaintive call for the audience to reaffirm its faith in fairies, to save her, a message not lost on the older crowd. But moments of Peter Pan’s empathy and care are rare indeed. Mostly, Pan derives his pleasure from his superb one-upmanship, his ability to get the best of Hook. And when Pan is heroic, he is also smug, a self-conscious savior and proud deliverer. And when Pan wants Wendy to stay, he attempts to bar the windows to her house, denying her what he couldn’t have—a home again, But he will not kiss her. “Peter, what are you to me?” Wendy would ask, and Pan would say “My mother.”

Peter’s triumph over Hook is a victory for youth, perhaps, but not a victory for the audience. Wendy, the brothers, and the Lost Boys can return to the real world, but we still feel for Hook’s tragedy, for Hook’s soul when he faces the sword drawn at his neck. But we don’t feel for Pan. As Wendy returns intermittently, it becomes clear that Pan only loves the stories about himself. Pan is, after all, incapable of going through another window: That’s the danger of never going home.

Peter Pan is running at the Off Broadway Theater on Fri., Oct. 30 and Sat., Oct. 31.